I thought I should record for posterity (joke, I'm not that pompous) my impressions from the Putting the Science into Fiction conference I attended at Manchester University on Wednesday. Apart from discovering that quite a few of my blog-readers/Twitter followers believed me to be female, something I'm about to comprehensively disprove by the Power of Nerdism.
Firstly, I was stunned by the size and quality of the crowd. Apart from several of my favourite authors (Scottish Trotskyist-libertarian Ken MacLeod, Geoff Ryman, Alastair Reynolds and Paul McAuley), there were so many astonishing scientists, casually mentioning the satellite telescopes they had in space right now. Of the authors I didn't know, I'm definitely going to buy some books by Justina Robson and Craig Pay, a very cheerful man considering he writes what the Guardian called 'harrowing' fiction.
The day was broken into three sections. The first covered the process of collaboration between authors and scientist for a book, When It Changed. It was a fascinating insight into the joys - but also the difficulties - of working together. Amongst the technical points, the Research Assessment Framework's inability to cope with creative work, which hardly encourages scientists to engage, and the prevalence of Non-Disclosure Agreements, which spread fear amongst those inclined to collaborate.
The second section covered science in film and TV. Although the panellists were interesting and often amusing, I thought this discussion was the weakest of the lot. We all felt that science deserved more and better coverage, but there was a distinct element of Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con as assorted contributors bemoaned the inaccuracy of TV science. I couldn't help feeling that the non-scientific viewer is a happier creature: free to suspend disbelief and use her imagination without feeling that fiction has to be utterly authentic. When the discussion turned to complaining that rockets don't go 'whoosh' in space, I thought we'd fallen down the rabbit-hole.
What was largely absent was a cultural studies element: while all the contributors were learned, wise, witty and likeable, there was little recognition - apart from the authors - that science is itself a fictional narrative, albeit it one with a closer grasp of reality than most. Postmodern literary criticism leaped on quantum physics' uncertainty principle with gusto to insist that all narratives are perspectives rather than truths, yet participants were rather reluctant to accept that science itself is paradigmatic: it processes perception according to cultural values.
The most successful strand was that involving the creative writers. Most of them were former scientists or at least holders of science degrees, and believed that science in literature should be at least extrapolated from what we currently believe to be possible. I'm largely in agreement, but do worry that this cuts us off from a huge imaginative landscape. Star Trek's failure to obey relativity was mentioned - time appears to run at the same pace on board the Enterprise as it does on Earth, whereas Einstein proved that the crew should return to what seems to them like Earth's future - but I tend to feel that this misses the point. To me, science fiction explores the consequences of scientific, political and cultural change: it extrapolates from our current fears. That's why I like Ken MacLeod's work: he wants to know how the future economy works, how technological change will alter working lives and therefore proletarian politics. If we're going to restrict SF to 'real' science, it's going to be bloody boring. Essentially, the only plot remaining is: 'stay on earth - wreck the environment - kill off the poor - everybody dies'. (I had a lively chat on Twitter about my gloomy attitude: I'm still right). Compellingly gloomy of course, but not everyone's cup of tea. Although I mostly read 'hard' SF (scientifically plausible), I fear an SF culture in which anyone who takes an imaginative leap gets a visit from the Plausibility Police.
The discussion turned to The Big Bang Theory (shockingly, Doctor Who was only mentioned at the very end of the day, in passing). The panellists thought that it's brilliant because everything Sheldon says in his rants is scientifically accurate. Big win for science, they felt. Imagine if it was made in Britain, they asked. What rubbish it would be. Look, they said: millions or ordinary Americans watching scientists in the slot formerly occupied by Two and a Half Men or some other lowest-common denominator tripe.
Oh dear. This is utter bollocks. While the scientists are loving Sheldon's defence of string theory, the rest of the world is drinking in a show which encourages us to view scientists as loveably dysfunctional nerds with borderline mental health problems and an inability to relate to ordinary people's emotions. This is not progressive or in any way a win for science. BBT is lowest-common denominator TV, with a few in-jokes for the nerd crowd thrown in because they're the ones on the bulletin boards. (If it was made in Britain, it would be emotionally darker and we'd see a lot more grant applications on screen. Rather than reach for the most obvious - and telegraphed zinger - I suspect a British version would be slower, possibly darker and less reliant on lazy stereotypes. Unless it was on E4. I always feel disappointed by BBT: it could be so much better. I share several shirts with Sheldon Cooper. Perhaps even some personality traits. But it feels like a massive missed opportunity).
The problem with this passionate debate is that it missed something important. If scientists and critics spend their lives complaining about inaccuracy in the science that is on screen, we forget the urgent and political duty to complain about the exclusion of the science that isn't on screen. In particular, American popular culture absolutely refuses to deal with climate change, reproduction or stem cell research (except for last night's South Park, which had Christopher Reeve becoming a super villain by noisily sucking the blood from aborted foetuses).
Hollywood doesn't lead, it follows. While we're congratulating ourselves every time Sheldon says something funny about Hubble, American TV is either ignoring or ridiculing climate science. Feel like a win, does it?
One of the most interesting literary points raised wasn't followed up. MacLeod mentioned Andrew Crumey's Sputnik Caledonia, which he categorised (rightly, I think) as literary fiction employing SF tropes metaphorically. 'Literary fiction metaphorizes; science fiction literalizes', he said. I didn't get a chance to pick up on this, and nobody else chose to. I think it's a fascinating statement to make, especially for an SF author. Actually, I should stop saying 'SF: MacLeod's work is often 'speculative fiction', because it extends current concerns into the future without necessarily concerning itself with gadgets. I think he's half right. Bad science fiction is horribly literal. All that post-apocalyptic gun-nut fantasy nonsense like The Survivalist or the drearier space-operas (Heinlein: you're a fascist dick). But good science fiction/speculative fiction is literary fiction, because it draws on the complexity and richness of human culture to imagine alternative pasts, presents and futures.
Similarly there's a divide between bad literary fiction, which often hijacks genre fiction like SF without any respect for its conventions or concerns, and good literary fiction, which also participates in the roiling debates about how and why we've got to this cultural point. A literary fiction which crudely metaphorizes science, music or anything else is failed fiction. Done well, on the other hand, literary fiction such as Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go raises serious questions and doubts about our cultural dispositions - just like good SF.
The final section was the least interesting: a debate about whether to form a Science Club to purvey advice to TV and film producers, as they have in the US. Some participants thought there might be some money in it, others saw it as a pressure group for the Professor Frinks ('in series 4, episode 3, 12 minutes in, the aero-gel used to cushion the atomic blast was pink, whereas in reality it's grey. Worst. Episode. Ever. Explain please') of this world. So I went to the pub with Ben and then for Korean.
Overall, a fascinating day, and I'm very pleased I went. If it happens again? More cultural perspectives, more politics, less nitpicking and more female authors: I'd recommend Gwyneth Jones (as always). Met lots of lovely people and got wet. Just like most of my visits to Manchester.